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Biden unity plea hits reality of bitterly divided US
Seeking American unity

Biden unity plea hits reality of bitterly divided US

5 min. 02.03.2022 From our online archive
President draws applause from political opponents by condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Putin
US President Joe Biden takes photos with members of Congress after delivering his first State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Tuesday
US President Joe Biden takes photos with members of Congress after delivering his first State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on Tuesday
Photo credit: AFP

US President Joe Biden asked Americans to rally behind a shared political vision -- and against a geopolitical foe -- in his first State of the Union speech as he sought to assuage a nation beleaguered by a stubborn pandemic, deep cultural divisions, and historic inflation.

But the harder Biden pushed familiar appeals to bipartisanship and democratic ideals in his speech on Tuesday, the more he emphasized how frequently he’d collided against the limits of that approach in his first year in office.

The president opened with a sweeping condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, drawing bipartisan cheers as he challenged the House chamber to literally stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The moment, and Biden’s improvised vow that Putin has “no idea what’s coming,” dramatized his appeal for national unity.

Biden tried his best to conjure optimism, declaring a new phase in the fight against the coronavirus and hailing the perseverance and strength of the American people. He unveiled what he called a “unity agenda” focused on ideas like battling cancer and opioid addiction, aiding veterans, and bolstering mental health services that could appeal to Republicans.

“There’s something happening in America,” Biden said. “Just look around and you’ll see an amazing story.”

The majority of Biden’s remarks were dedicated to resuscitating an economic agenda that’s failed to gain traction with moderate lawmakers or motivate voters. Biden’s argument that spending on climate change, prescription drugs, and childcare could fight inflation was one he’s made ever since his “Build Back Better” legislation collapsed late last year. 

Polls by TV networks immediately after the speech showed that people who watched it largely liked what they heard. Almost eight in 10 viewers approved of Biden’s remarks, according to a CBS News/YouGov poll. More than six in 10 said they believed Biden’s policies would lower inflation, up from 48% before the speech. Just over 70% said Biden’s moves on Russia would be effective.

However, Senator Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat whose opposition to Build Back Better sunk the plan, indicated that his sentiment toward Biden’s economic policy hadn’t changed. He told reporters after Biden’s speech, “I’ve never found that you can lower costs by spending more,” according to CBS News.

The president’s “building a better America” re-branding of his economic plan showed the extent to which his signature legislative proposal had become anathema to the moderate lawmakers who control his legacy.

The hope for the White House is that the address nevertheless offered a reset for the president ahead of November’s midterm elections.

By orienting his speech largely around initiatives and programs that carry appeal in politically centrist communities across the country, Biden was trying to beat back Republican arguments that his vision had been hijacked by radicals within the Democratic Party, or that he had lost touch with the pocketbook issues facing ordinary Americans.

Some of the appeals may work. Democrats have been battered in the suburbs by parents frustrated over school closures and childcare crises stemming from the pandemic. Biden’s call Tuesday for Americans to “get back to work and fill our great downtowns again” brought lawmakers of both parties to their feet. 

He said the U.S. was prepared for future iterations of the coronavirus, and vowed to keep schools open. “Let’s stop looking at Covid-19 as a partisan dividing line.”

But other elements of his speech only reinforced the problems that have hampered his administration.

His plea to increase funding for law enforcement gave cover to moderate Democrats who have complained that progressives’ efforts to “defund the police” doom them in swing districts. But the appeal also reminded viewers that violent crime has spiked during the pandemic, while emphasizing the distance between the president and the Democratic base and progressive frustrations that the administration hasn’t made more progress on civil and voting rights issues. 

Similarly, Biden’s push to revitalize a decimated mental health workforce and combat the opioid crisis underscored the heavy toll of the pandemic. His call to regulate social media companies’ targeting of children demonstrated how little had been done to curb toxic disinformation and exploitation on the companies’ platforms.

Members of the Marine Corps Chemical Biological Incident Response Force walk through the Capitol Rotunda before U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address on Tuesday
Members of the Marine Corps Chemical Biological Incident Response Force walk through the Capitol Rotunda before U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address on Tuesday

In a telling moment, the speech’s emotional crescendo -- Biden’s detailing of efforts to eliminate toxic burn pits in the military and better support ill veterans --was interrupted by Lauren Boebert, the conspiracy-spouting freshman Republican congresswoman from Colorado. She heckled Biden over his handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal.

The exchange played far better for Biden than the congresswoman, who appeared insensitive. But the episode illustrated the depths of Washington’s partisan divides, and the rancor that’s persisted from President Donald Trump’s administration.

Even the event’s staging offered less promise than the president might have hoped.

Lawmakers returned, maskless, to the House chamber, but were assigned to occupy every other seat -- robbing the event of a sense that the nation is on the verge of full normalcy. Mandatory coronavirus tests before the speech revealed an outbreak among at least four House Democrats – including Representative Jamie Raskin, a Maryland lawmaker who is married to Sarah Bloom Raskin, Biden’s controversial choice to be the Federal Reserve’s bank regulator.

Some Republicans boycotted the speech over the testing requirement, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

Outside the Capitol, freshly reinstalled fencing and armored vehicles served as a reminder of the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection by Trump’s supporters.

While Biden hasn’t approached the rhetorical or political divisiveness of his predecessor, his missteps have left him nearly as unpopular. Based on Trump’s false claims, many Republicans remain convinced the president stole the election. Suburban moderates are concerned about rising prices and deficit spending. Progressives are sore that Biden fettered away leverage and failed to deliver sweeping changes to the nation’s social policy.

Just 38% of Americans approve of the way Biden is handling his job, according to a Quinnipiac poll released earlier in the week.

Still, there is hope for the White House that conditions heading into Tuesday’s address represented a floor for the president, and that Biden will be able to parlay his call to unity into a political rebound.

Supply chain issues and the resulting inflation are likely to taper as pandemic restrictions recede, and underlying economic fundamentals – from rapid hiring to steady discretionary spending – signal the prospect of a strong recovery, White House aides believe. Americans’ moods may improve as they emerge from shutdowns and mask mandates.

“We are stronger today than we were a year ago,” Biden said. “And we’ll be stronger a year from now than we are today.”

For Democrats, the hope is that axiom also proves true for a president running out of time.

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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